Family Matters

"A Two Wheeler Dealer"
(Johnnie Clifton Burgin)

Inside that unassuming barn near Spanaway, Washington was what many folks
regard as one of the motorcycle industry's premier private bike collections.

Among the some 50 vintage cycles is the entire Harley-Davidson Knucklehead series, all 12 from 1936 to '47 - believed to be one of only three complete series in existence. Across the hardwood floor is a handful of restored military bikes. The most valuable and rarest cycle in the room is an unrestored 1907 FN.

Steve White, motorcycle enthusiast & builder, foreground
#15646381 Johnnie Clifton Burgin, background

Downstairs, in a dingy repair shop where hundreds of motorcycle parts and tools surround you, is where Johnnie Clifton Burgin did his magic. Johnnie a leading collector and restorer of vintage Harley Davidson and other motorcycles and a native of Old Fort, NC, died Feb. 18, 2005 at age 85.

Born in Old Fort, N.C., on Christmas Day, 1919, Johnnie was the son of Howard Gurney Burgin and Vassie Louise Souther. He was taken out of school as a boy to help work the family farm and soon showed his mechanical aptitude."When he was about 12 and his grandfather's tractor broke down and Johnnie managed to put it back together," said Bernadine Burgin, his wife of 60 years. "He just figured out how it worked," she said.

Johnnie was turned on to motorcycles at the age of 16 when he read his first issue of the Harley-Davidson magazine, (The Enthusiast). He broke in on a 1930 Harley-Davidson VL. At the outbreak of WWII, at age 18, he enlisted in the Army and became an Army Motor Sergeant. Burgin served 3 1/2 years in the South Pacific.

After the war ended in Europe, he bought himself a 1939 H-D knucklehead and rode it from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to Fort Lewis, Washington and a year later moved to that state permanently. There, he met and pursued Bernadine Barker. They were married September 23, 1945.

Johnnie and Bernadine settled in the Tacoma area, where he owned and ran Burgin's Engine Rebuilding, an automobile engine rebuilding shop, for about 15 years. He retired in 1970 at age 50, and several years later moved to Spanaway, where he opened a motorcycle repair and restoration shop in front of the family home and began building his vintage collection. He kept busy rebuilding vintage bikes, building his collection with an uncanny comprehension of antique cycles.

His other specialty was military motorcycles, drawn from many countries and different wars. He built 32 of them from recycled parts and was an internationally recognized authority in this specialty. Johnnie described his work as a hobby that got out of control. "I went from working on my own bikes, to working on other people’s bikes, to hiring people to work on bikes.” In 1980, he started Vintage Motorcycles Northwest, and according to Johnnie, “the work never slowed down.”

His collection, except for the military bikes,
was all "American-built"

Gone, friends say, is a respected and heavily sought-after authority on vintage motorcycles. They say people traveled from around the world to visit his collection or to have him provide his deft touch to their rare bikes.

(Johnnie Burgin)

"With his passing, a lot of knowledge, it goes - it's just gone, just gone," said Nik Lamkin, who sells motorcycle parts at Destination Harley-Davidson of Tacoma. Lamkin, one of the many people whose road just happened to cross Burgin's, was always fascinated with the spectrum of knowledge and talent Burgin displayed.

"He could rebuild a Knucklehead on the side of the road," said Lamkin, who often bought parts from Burgin while he worked on his own bikes. Burgin was never shy in giving him a good deal.

The two met over a bottle of scotch at a swap meet in 1980. "John didn't need an excuse to enjoy some scotch," Lamkin said.

Beyond his love of motorcycles, Burgin also showed a compassion for people, his friends said. He fixed bikes for kids to keep them out of gangs. He sometimes gave out-of-work friends odd jobs.

"He was the kindest man I ever knew," Bernadine Burgin said. "He was as moral and honest as the day is long."

Johnnie and Bernadine had two daughters Lola and Joy, three grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Sources: Burgin Family Members
WFMY News - Greensboro, NC (
The News & Observer (
Onionwerks Vintage Motorcyle Site (